Merkel’s grand coalition on shaky ground after Bavarian rout

More election disaster looms for CDU as chancellor moves into damage-limitation mode

German chancellor Angela Merkel: ‘I have to take greater care that trust exists and that the results of our work become visible.’ Photograph: Alexander Becher/EPA

German chancellor Angela Merkel: ‘I have to take greater care that trust exists and that the results of our work become visible.’ Photograph: Alexander Becher/EPA

 

German chancellor Angela Merkel moved into damage-limitation mode on Monday, with an eye on another potential state election disaster in two weeks after a weekend rout for her Bavarian allies.

After scoring its worst state election result since 1950, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) will start coalition talks on Tuesday with the regional Free Voters party in an attempt to extend its six-decade hold on power.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s grip on power in Berlin faces another challenge, with a similar drubbing looming in the western state of Hesse on October 28th for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In Berlin on Monday, the chancellor conceded that steady growth and a record jobless low were overshadowed by “a lack of trust” in politicians after six months of grand coalition squabbling. The conservative CDU-CSU alliance governs Germany in partnership with the centre-left SPD.

“My personal lesson from yesterday is that, as chancellor of this grand coalition, I have to take greater care that trust exists and that the results of our work become visible,” she said, urging a ceasefire between Germany’s warring centre-right sister parties – the CDU and CSU.

The two parties were sniping again on Monday when a regional CDU leader suggested heads should roll in Bavaria.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, also federal interior minister in Berlin, insisted now was “not the time for the blame game” and refused to consider standing down. Meanwhile his party backed state premier Markus Söder in a Monday-morning vote.

Conciliatory

After weeks attacking each other, Seehofer and Söder were both in a noticeably conciliatory mood, hours after an 11-point slump in CSU support to just 37 per cent.

The party’s confused election strategy – switching from centrist to hard right and then back again – prompted voter defections in three directions.

Moderate and liberal supporters, furious at the CSU’s hardline migration policy and rhetoric, shifted to the Green Party.

It achieved a record vote of 17.5 per cent, which jumped to 26 per cent among the two million Bavarians who live in big cities such Munich, Nuremberg and Augsburg – the most dramatic urban-rural results gap.

The erosion of Bavaria’s political centre was visible too, as traditional voters boosted the Bavarian-specific Freie Wähler (Free Voters) to 10 per cent, giving it most-favoured coalition partner status.

Society has changed, Bavaria has changed and Bavarian voters have changed – but the mainstream parties have slept through that change

Effectively a one-man party around its leader Hubert Aiwanger, the FW wants three ministries and greater regional investment in Bavaria. Another striking result was a drop in support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) from high forecasts to about 10 per cent – and 8 per cent in cities.

On Monday it vowed to offer robust opposition politics when it enters the Bavarian state parliament for the first time. But its onetime vote-winner – concern over the migration crisis – is losing ground to a housing crisis and other issues.

Destabilise

Opinion is divided among German analysts over whether the CSU disaster will calm or destabilise Merkel’s Berlin coalition.

Political scientist Jürgen Falter suggested the deflated CSU would now be “more tame in Berlin”. But veteran Bavarian analyst Heinrich Oberreuter disagreed. With the CSU postponing, not resolving, its leadership questions, Sunday’s result would “further destabilise Merkel and her government”.

“Society has changed, Bavaria has changed and Bavarian voters have changed – but the mainstream parties have slept through that change,” he said. 

Even if a CDU-CSU ceasefire holds in Berlin, turbulence is likely from the grand coalition’s third partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Not even its traditional weakness in Bavaria prepared the centre-left party for its 9.7 per cent result – its lowest-ever support in a state election.

“There was no tail-wind from Berlin, quite the opposite, and that has to change,” said Andrea Nahles, the SPD leader in the grand coalition.  

With voters boosting smaller parties and the fringes at the expense of the centre – the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) squeezed back in – Falter suggested fear, not strength, was holding Dr Merkel’s fourth-term grand coalition together.

After Bavaria and ahead of Hesse, he forecast the only thing Berlin’s unhappy grand coalition cohabitants would agree on was that “fresh elections would be suicide”.

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